Autumn in Michigan's Upper Peninsula means hunting season, and the fall of 1950 finds most everyone in St. Adele township hunting for something - deer, grouse, uranium; love, redemption, escape; a story, a husband, a murderer. When the son of summer residents at the exclusive Shawanok Club is found dead after an uproarious dance at the town hall, the sheriff is fl ummoxed, and everyone is appalled: Bambi was found in the loft over the tool shed, bound, gagged, and inexpertly scalped. Who better to search for the killer than St. Adele's reluctant constable, John McIntire? The trail he must follow branches off like the spokes of a wheel, leading to multiple dead ends. The only common link seems to be the boy's parents: a father who is mysteriously unavailable, a mother, on a mission to see her son's killer dead, who remains sequestered in her rented mansion, baking cream pies and playing the piano. Her imported private eye seems more interested in dallying with McIntire's exotic Aunt Siobhan, who's turned up on his doorstep some 25 years after she ran off with a carnival worker as a teen. And Bambi's mentor on a summer's search for uranium, a hot prospect in Flambeau County, is more conversant with archaeological artifacts than Geiger counters.
The deliberate pace of Hills's sophomore effort, set in heavily rural Upper Michigan in the 1950s (after 2002's Past Imperfect), succeeds perfectly in capturing the complex relationships between insiders and outsiders and the obligations of family and friendship. An argument at a local dance between a rich kid and an Indian youth is prelude to a bizarre murder that sucks Constable John McIntire away from his pleasurable pastime of translating Selma Lagerlf's The Story of Gsta Berling from Swedish to English. By rights McIntire's role is secondary to that of the state police and Sheriff Pete Koski. But McIntire, prodded by conscience and curiosity, worries the investigation along like a bloodhound. Like an art restorer who uncovers a masterpiece hidden under a later, poorer painting, Hills lovingly clears away the grime and accretions to reveal stunning portraits of the residents of St. Adele, be they native, prodigal or temporary. Glimpses of individual portraits tantalize: the wife desperate to save her heavy-drinking husband; the bereaved mother compulsively baking; the private investigator seemingly more intent on finding uranium than a killer; the ancient recluse living rough and zealously guarding his privacy. But only when the restoration is complete can the viewer (or reader) appreciate the brilliance of the artist's vision. Hills's quiet masterpiece, including its shocking ending, lingers in the mind's eye long after the book is finished.
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March 01, 2006
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